AMERICAN Graffiti opens to Bill Haley and His Comets’ 1954 sock hop standard Rock Around the Clock as high-school graduates Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) converge on a Mel’s Drive-In littered with modded and rodded metal. There, they meet friends John Milner and Terry ‘Toad’ Fields.
Curt has a scholarship but is uncertain about leaving Modesto and his friends the next morning. “You can’t stay 17 forever,” Steve says. Slicked-back drag racer John Milner doesn’t like change. “The whole [cruising] strip is shrinking,” he says, leaning on his yellow ’32. “I remember about five years ago, taking a couple of hours; a tank full of gas just to make a full circuit.”
Much of the car action centres on Milner. “There’s a very wicked ’55 Chevy looking for you,” shouts another cruiser. We soon meet the black Chev and its cowboy driver, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). “You know a guy round here with a piss-yellow deuce coupe, supposed to be hot stuff?” he asks Toad, who’s out cruising Steve’s ’58 Impala. “Tell him I aim to blow his ass right off the road!”
Milner’s ’32 and Falfa’s ’55 Chev meet at the traffic lights. The dialogue is timeless: “You’re supposed to be the fastest thing in the valley but that can’t be your car, it must be your mama’s!” Falfa crows. “You call that a paint job,” Milner spits. “I bet you gotta sneak up on the hose just to get a little air in your tyres!” “C’mon boy, let’s go — prove it,” Falfa taunts. But the Chev leaves Milner and his rod in its smoke. At Mel’s, a rematch is planned. “Paradise Road,” Milner says.
The pair square up to Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. Falfa lights ’em up and Milner noses ahead. The Chev’s catching him but Falfa loses control and the ’55 crashes and burns. Despite a victory of sorts, Milner fears his reputation is lost: “Shit, Toad, the man had me. He was beatin’ me.” Toad disagrees. “You’ll always be number one, John, you’re the greatest.”
Made on a tight budget, American Graffiti became one of the most profitable films ever and gave George Lucas the financial freedom to develop his idea for a space flick that would become Star Wars.
American Graffiti paints an arresting picture of the end of the rock ’n’ roll era in 60s So Cal, and its custom cars and hot rods serve not just as eye-candy but as a snapshot of the greaser-meets-drag-racer era. The film not only inspired a host of other film and TV projects (Happy Days and Grease) but reignited the popularity of hot rods and customs across the globe.
- 1932 Ford coupe
- ’58 Chev Impala
- ’55 Chev
- ’56 Thunderbird
COOL FLICK FACT:
The licence plate on the ’32 coupe, THX138, is a reference to Lucas’ 1971 sci-fi debut THX1138